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Boxing Gym is a contender: Movie about an Austin gym delivers a TKO

Boxing Gym is a contender: Movie about an Austin gym delivers a TKO

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Boxing Gym tells a simple, yet compelling tale of one Austin gym.

Looking for some Christmas uplift? I can recommend a happy dose from an unlikely-sounding source: Boxing Gym, the latest documentary from the great Frederick Wiseman.

First, let me state the obvious; Boxing Gym (which is playing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston this week) was not filmed with the holidays in mind (despite the fact that the gym in question is named Lord’s Gym), but it’s still surprisingly uplifting. Much more so than Wiseman’s doc that came out last year, La Danse, which subjected the little world of the Paris Opera Ballet Company to the same of close scrutiny that Lord’s Gym gets here.

I did my best to enjoy La Danse, but finally had to admit that it was tedious. But Boxing Gym is anything but. I couldn’t have imagined that a film with absolutely no story line — no buildup to any single event, whether big or small — could be this engrossing.

In large part, that’s because Lord’s Gym is such a marvelously democratic space, ruled by benign dictator (and former pro fighter) Richard Lord that it seems, in this film at least, to be a kind of utopia where all are welcomed, all are accepted. It’s not surprising that black, white, and brown fighters (and would-be fighters) are on display, and I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that so many of the pugilists are women.

I was taken aback, though, by the numbers of young mothers who are here, either earnestly learning to fight or simply burning off the post-pregnancy fat. And they’ve brought babies with them, bundled up in their carriers. Even one boxing dad has brought his baby along.

But if this makes Lord’s Gym sound like a wing of Bally’s Fitness, or the Y, think again. This gym is also a place where you go train hard and learn from masters if you think that you just might have what it takes to be a contender.

So, besides the racial and gender breakdowns, you see real boxers working out next to guys who need to lose well over 100 pounds, and who, you might say, are actually fighting for their lives. The film, at least, doesn’t judge anybody, and it gives the impression that the gym doesn’t either.

And, perhaps because the gym is located in Austin, you find a few philosophers, aesthetes and culinary institute students sprinkled in.

The gym is so democratic, in fact, and so elemental, that, except for Lord, no one here even has a name.

As I said, the film tells no story; it’s “merely” a series of images and sounds, some of which are pained grunts, and others are fragments from conversations on the nature of “dues paying” and violence. Shot by Wiseman’s crack cinematographer Richard Davey, the film is essentially a series of short films that show bodies in highly controlled motion.

Most of the scenes are strangely hypnotic — the gym is apparently a more intimate space than are the Paris Ballet Theater’s studios — and reach a climax of sorts in a brilliant set piece which simply shows two boxers, one male, one female, shadow boxing in the ring.

Completely ignoring each other (the gym’s lack of sexual tension contributes to its feeling of blissful democracy), each fighter pursues his or her individual style. The man, in early middle-age, wears a non-descript pair of gray shorts and T-shirt. He’s mostly noteworthy for the incessant sounds he makes as he throws rapid-fire punches against the air. The somewhat younger woman, meanwhile, dressed in scarlet sweatpants, is completely silent, intent on her bouncing footwork, which the camera follows in close fascination. You see her feet while you listen to his gasps.

They’re five feet apart from each other, but don’t seem to notice each other. They’re each self-absorbed in the most positive meaning of that phrase.

Some of the conversations are compelling. One middle-aged boxer, who is apparently making a final push in his career, instructs a young man on the absolute necessity of “paying your dues” in this life, and how nobody is going to help you but yourself; the young man is palpably eager to receive this counsel.

Another conversation is less generic. Part of Boxing Gym was filmed during the Virginia Tech campus massacre of 2007. When a trio of fighters discuss the tragedy, as mystified as to how it could happen as anybody else, it’s clear how far that random, chaotic act of violence is from the disciplined struggle of the boxing gym.

There our appetites for anarchy and destruction have been tamed and brought to positive use. The fighters and their goals seem noble, of all things, and a sort of new millennial chivalry, available to male and female alike, seems to have quietly been born.

Editor's note: Boxing Gym will be shown Thursday night at 7 and Sunday at 2 and 5 p.m. at MFAH.